Priyamvada Gopal, University of Cambridge

The dismantling of the public university in England and putting in its place a fully neoliberal, i.e. privatised, university is occurring within a larger landscape of punishing deprivation in which we are invited, somewhat disingenuously, to look upon the sustained assault on higher education as lower down in ‘the pecking order of pain.’

The vast majority of young people in this country are at the receiving end of a sustained and intensifying class offensive that has foisted an austerity regime upon those who can least afford it. The number of so-called NEETS—not in employment, education and training— is high and over a third of pupils are still leaving schools without basic qualifications, most of them from low-income backgrounds. With nearly a million unemployed, that is about one in five young people out of work, we have a generation of young people who will be in and out of poorly remunerated jobs for the rest of their lives.

Those who are in jobs frequently work in low-satisfaction, repetitive, brain-deadening and alienating employment, often preceded by offering their labour for free to corporate employers under bizarre new ‘work experience’ rules for jobseekers. University, if you make it that far, will set you back some 80, 000 pounds in debt and that’s before the race to get on to the housing ladder, the chances of which are abysmally lower than ever for young people coming into employment today.

What makes all this infinitely worse is the claim that young people are being placed at the ‘heart of the system’, that in being thus deprived of equality of opportunity, they are being empowered. Such deep dishonesty, regurgitated variously since, was first evidenced by the Coalition government’s infamous 2011 White Paper on Higher Education which suggests that turning young people into debt-ridden consumers from the earliest possible stage is a way of bestowing agency upon them. ‘Power’ is reducible to purchasing power and if acquiring purchasing power means shackling yourself to debt, then so it must be.

Both the White Paper, entitled “Students at the Heart of the System”, and the Browne Report which preceded it, are peppered liberally with claims that the main goal is to place all choice, judgement and evaluation in the hands of ‘the student’, figured as the fully formed subject of possessive liberal individualism. As students are leveraged for huge fees—tripled in 2010—and likely to rise further— under the guise of ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice,’ with thousands priced out of an undergraduate education altogether, it takes no prophet to predict that subjects without a self-evident ‘market value’ will inevitably decline in the long term, as has occurred in the US.

All but the most affluent young people will be induced to turn away from courses in literature, history, modern languages and most social sciences towards professional qualifications in ‘high-utility’ subjects like Law and Business Administration in the understandable hope of a certain return for investment. Some institutions have already reduced provision in the humanities, a trend likely to continue until subjects like philosophy and linguistics become the preserve, once again, of a tiny leisure class.  The humanities now face a crisis of possible extinction that will reverberate well beyond universities. The private sector plays a dominant role in setting the agenda for the public funding of science’ and defining what counts as the right kind of science.  For what is being attacked really is not so much the humanities or the arts but really anything that doesn’t immediately or within the short term translate into cash. If this sounds crude, it’s because it is.

The larger context is also one of the steady erosion of democracy itself. Like everything else once held as a resource in common—schools, industries, utilities, woodlands, libraries, and universities—democracy itself is turning into a feature of, for and by the market. When real democratic expression from below does emerge, it is met with alarm and threats. Victorian broadsheet-like denunciations of the ‘dangerous sentiments of the Democracy’ were echoed in some media descriptions of anti-cuts protests as ‘mob rule.’ There’s been talk of banning student demonstrations on policing grounds. Union action to represent working people invites red-baiting and hostile editorials.

There have been startlingly authoritarian attempts to prevent and hinder student organising with methods including police infiltration of student groups and the recruitment of informers.  Pre-emptive arrests often precede mobilization. The response to the many peaceful ‘occupations’ and democratic street protests that took place in 2010 was vehement, assertion of institutional and state power ranging from legal notices, evictions and fines to threats of expulsion, arrests, and ‘exemplary’ excessive jail sentences.

In late 2013, as students joined agitation for better working conditions for cleaners and against the privatisation of the loan book, the University of London was granted an injunction from the High Court prohibiting ‘persons unknown (including students of the University of London) from ‘entering or remaining upon the campus and buildings of University of London for the purpose of occupational protest action.’ The use of injunctions to quash protest”, writes the law scholar, Brenna Bhandar, ‘is an indicator of how deeply privatisation has taken root in British universities.’ Evictions are accompanied, as in this instance, by the roughing up of protesters, caught on video. “University managements across the country are calling the police in because they’ve lost the substantive argument,’ points out the student leader, Michael Chessum, who also endured arrest for allegedly allowing a demonstration to get out of control.  

Democratically engaged, educated, assertive and committed young people are clearly not wanted then. What does a workforce of poorly paid and obedient drones, taught only to consume, need a higher education for? The demonization of young people—constructing them as dangerous, liable to erupt at any time unless under constant threat and surveillance– is one of the features of our political present: you will be demonized, disciplined and punished until you understand that everything in society, all human good, must be subordinated to the logic of the so-called free marketplace, that only the sacred hunger for profit can be assuaged. The late trade-unionist John Reid, in a famous 1962 commencement address at the University of Glasgow, described this pithily as the tendency ‘to see people as units of production, as indices in your accountants’ books.’

Higher education, a great shared resource which ought to be available to all who want it, has become yet another social responsibility redirected towards private sector profit. In the process, it will become fully out of reach for the vast majority of young people. With universities once again the province of the wealthy elite, we will see a worsening of an already bad situation where knowledge itself will serve only the interests of power and profit. Our current government, with the able assistance of the previous one, seeks to claw back the hard-won concessions and the very real democratic victories of a century or more as the right to an education was extended across social and economic boundaries. We are now at a watershed moment: this is the endgame in a decisive struggle to determine whether we move forward as a society towards social justice or revert to a time when not only were wealth, property and education the prerogative of an entitled few but when it was deemed right that it should be so.

Although unhappiness has been widely voiced in the secure confines of common rooms, seminar halls and journals, academics have not, on the whole, mounted strong collective resistance to these profound transformations in how higher education is thought of and practised. The lecturers’ union, the Universities and College Union (UCU) has attempted symbolic strike action and ‘working-to-contract’ but its leadership is yet to conceptualise and spearhead effective resistance to a corporatizing regime. Indeed, with the exception of a handful who have been co-opted by the bloated administrations of our universities and dream of retiring with fat pensions on high six-figure salaries: as they fight, tooth and nail, union claims for higher staff remuneration in the face of a 13% real terms pay cut, Vice-Chancellors have just been awarded an average rise of 8.1%, about £ 20, 000 each on pay packets which are already in the ballpark of a quarter of a million pounds or more.

Notwithstanding the efforts of various small campaigning groups and individuals across the sector, there has been a striking absence of powerful and united collective dissent. The sad truth is that despite pockets of resistance and some concerted union action, British academics’ have demonstrated a virtual acquiescence to a regime most deprecate at least verbally. Many have voiced discontent with this state of affairs but distanced themselves from active struggle or criticised the agitational methods of those who have protested. In this context, we would do well to recall Frederick Douglass’s famously trenchant observation: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”


Priyamvada Gopal is a member of the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Churchill College. She researches colonial and post-colonial literatures and is the author of The Indian English Novel: Nation, History and Narration, Oxford University Press (2009). She writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper.